To celebrate the release of Frozen II on DVD and Blu-ray, we were able to have a chat with Animation Supervisor for Elsa, Wayne Unten. Unten has worked on numerous animated features including Wreck-It Ralph, Moana, Zootopia and Big Hero 6.
He was also the Animation Supervisor for Elsa on the first Frozen movie. “It was nice to come back to Elsa again,” he tells me. Unten is speaking to me from his home via webchat. Although we’re isolating, movies like Frozen II are just one way for us to stay connected.
Unten feels a familial sense of connection to Elsa, having worked on her for such a long period of time. “It’s funny. Cause you spend so much time working with the characters. For the first film, we had to build the characters. It’s kinda like a digital puppet in the computer that we animate. So we spent a lot of time building her and then animating her and then you finally feel very comfortable animating the character. and then it’s over,” he explains.
“Now the movie is out and it’s kinda like I hear a lot of animators feel the same way where it’s like, your kids have gone off to college and you don’t see them anymore. I would hear from Elsa from time to time, I worked on a short called Frozen Fever and I helped on the animation for the Frozen ride at Epcot.”
With Frozen II though, Unten said it was like Elsa came “home from college and I got to spend a little bit more time with her. So that was was really nice. It was really funny.”
In the same way that children grow and change and mature, Unten says Elsa did too between Frozen and Frozen II. “She’s matured, both Anna and Elsa have, so you get to see how life is now three years since the previous events of the first film.” In Frozen, Elsa was afraid of her power and of herself. Her parents taught her to conceal her true nature because they were afraid of how others would react. Much of Frozen explored the way fear plays a role in our lives and shapes our relationships. In Frozen II, Unten says it’s almost like a role reversal.
“In the first film, Ana was the fearless one. With this new film, Elsa hears this call, it’s this thing out there that speaks to her magic side. Nothing had ever spoken to that side of her before. She’s excited. She wants to go out and venture out into the unknown and see who this is. Anna’s a little fearful for the safety of Elsa and she’s afraid that Elsa might be a little reckless because she’s just jumping out in there”
Finding the character’s motivations and emotions is an important part of the animation process. Unten tells me, “When we’re animating, we want to be truthful to who they are. In a way, we’re breathing life into these characters and we want to make sure the character feels alive.” Animators are like actors according to Unten and more than simply moving a digital puppet, animating a character means finding subtle nuances, like body language, emotions and facial expressions. Doing that leads to the film communications “who this character is to the audience in an entertaining and believable way.”
Often, this means not creating movement for movement’s sake Unten explains. “Even if a character is doing something as simple as a walk, it tells a little bit about who that character is.” On the flip side of this, animators sometimes need to animate things that aren’t even in the frame. Elsa running on the beach is a great example of this.
One of the shots in the film Unten animated is when Elsa runs into the ocean and dives into the waves. To get the movement right, Unten studied parkour performers and athletes. “I had to think ‘okay, so she’s running and then she’s going to dive into a wall.’ So I was wondering how it works? And so I was acting it out and then with the footfalls, I was noticing people who do parkour, they run one foot then the other foot. But when they’re about to dive, it’s like a double step. So it might be left foot, then left foot again and then into the push off into the dive,” he says.
When this happens, however, Elsa’s legs are off-camera but Unten is still animating them because it gives the right ‘accent’ to the double step and feels right. Unten likens it to animating breath for the characters. “If you don’t see the breath, something feels wrong but we don’t want the audiences to go, ‘oh that’s a nice breath that character did,’ we just want it to engage the audience.” These subtleties are incredibly important for the viewer as it gives them subconscious cues. “The audience will pick up on the character being scared,” Unten says, “Why? Because the breathing changed subconsciously you noticed and that helps us tell the story.”
Naturalism goes hand in hand with Unten’s edict to be truthful to the characters. For his work on Wreck-It Ralph, Unten explains that although Ralph moved in a “fleshed out, naturalistic” way, other characters had simple, almost eight-bit movement. Depending on where the animation is based — be it the real world, the internet or videogames — that’s what’s going to determine the basis for movement.
For Elsa, she’s a queen but she’s also been raised to hide her secret. “There’s a regalness a demure to her,” Unten tells me, ” There’s a grace to Elsa.” Other creatures in Frozen II were even more of a challenge. Unten points to the Nokk and the Earth Giants in particular. The Nokk is a horse made from water and while the team studied the locomotion of horses, they also needed to find a way to represent that it’s made from water.
For the Earth Giants, Unten explains;
With the earth giants that was a challenge where you have these huge giants and there’s different ways we could portray these earth giants. But we went for something where just the massive scale, we really wanted to feel the weight of these characters and that they’re hard rock stone characters that move very slow, but they have this power to them.
There’s a sequence where they’re sleeping, and the breathing is the thing that keys us into that. Otherwise, if they didn’t move at all, it would just look like the mountainside, but we have them sleeping.
And so you could see the breath, Their chest expanding, but it’s not flesh it’s stone. We wanted it to feel true to the materials, even to the look of the character, we didn’t want the rock to look like rubber. We even had these solid stones and we have them spread apart, but the stones themselves are solid, the cracks in between them, they get larger and they contract
To further improve on this naturalism in the characters, Unten and his team met with two singers who advised on the changes to the body during singing. “It gave us greater insight on certain things,” Unten says. “We asked them questions about the body and little things like how the sound resonates in the skull and some tricks they do when singing.” This kind of research is part of the fun and what inspires animators, at least animators like Unten.
I mention making films realistic and he’s quick to correct me. “It’s not necessarily realism. We’re going for believability. We take what it is and characterise it and distil it down to the essence of what we think the character is.”
I can’t help but ask Unten about Frozen III and he laughs. “Oh man, that would be fun,” he says. “I don’t know. Frozen III, I think it would be fun to work on, but it’s really up to the directors if they have a story in mind they want to tell.”
“I can talk about the project that has been announced; Raya and the Last Dragon. I’m an animator on that.” I asked Unten what character or animation work he’s responsible for on Raya and the Last Dragon and he coyly says, “Oh, well you just have to see, I will tell you one thing we do our research. We do extensive research. And that’s all I can say about.”
For my mind, that’s Wayne Unten admitting that Disney has access to live dragons. Right?
Frozen II is now available on Disney+, on DVD, Digital Download and Blu-ray.
Thanks to Wayne Unten for his time.